Short Story Online at White Whale Review Wednesday, May 5 2010 

If you’re so inclined, please visit White Whale Review and read my short story, “Bedroom Tapes.” It’s kind of a slow jam, but I like it.

Burgh Joshed by The Onion Thursday, May 21 2009 

I love it when The Onion makes fun of Pittsburgh. “Make fun of” isn’t totally accurate, because I sense a fondness for the city.

Some of my favorites include “Study Reveals Pittsburgh Unprepared for Full-Scale Zombie Attack” and “PNC Park Threatens to Leave Pittsburgh Unless Better Team is Built.

In the latest issue, though, there is one that I think sort of misses the mark: it’s “Steelers Jersey Worn to Pirates Game.” The Onion generally walks the line between deadpan humor—more or less describing things as they are, thereby playing up their absurdity—and more overt jokes. This one falls too far on the side of outright observation: Pittsburghers wear Steelers jerseys all the time! If you live in Pittsburgh, you’ll have to read deep into the article for the “joke” part of it (that the subject of the article brings a Terrible Towel and a “Cleveland Sucks” sign (which is a nice touch on the part of the writer), and starts a “Here we go Steelers” chant).

My fussiness aside, I like the accuracy of this depiction of Pittsburgh sports culture. Good one, Onion.

In other news, yesterday’s pizza-baking experiment was a qualified success. I stupidly used a pizza tray that had a number of holes in the bottom, with the result that the pizza sort of fused with the tray, making it very hard to cut and remove a slice. Live and learn, I guess. But it looks pretty much like a pizza, and tastes quite good.

In yet other news, I reversed my ordinary protocol today and did my fiction writing prior to blogging. I think this may be the way to go, rather than using the blog as a warm-up; I tend to rush through the blogging, and besides that I think these are two different writing “muscles,” and blogging is less of a warm-up than I’d thought.

Anyway, I’ll be back with anything interesting that happens.

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Quick Hits for Wednesday Wednesday, May 20 2009 

Whirlwind day so far. Have been taking care of business on multiple fronts. Finishing writing projects. Corresponding with important people. Making pizza dough. Drinking coffee again (I know, bad idea.) Don’t even have time to use subjects in my sentences.

OK, so I’m not quite that busy. But I’ve felt quite productive. To keep it going, I want to make this a short but intense thrill ride of a blog post. To that end:

-Luke Ravenstahl held serve in Pittsburgh’s Democratic primary yesterday, taking 59% of the vote to Patrick Dowd’s 28% and Carmen Robinson’s 13%. I’m not terribly disappointed—I think Luke is a decent mayor, but I hate the tendency of big-city machine politics to enthrone someone pretty much automatically once they get in. In Luke’s case, he got in when former mayor Bob O’Connor died.

-The AV Club, one of my most favorite websites and the place I trust the most for reviews of movies and music, did a “Random Rules” segment with Lord Grunge of Grand Buffet, a Pittsburgh-based white rap duo. A few notes: “Random Rules” is where they ask an artist (usually a musician) to put his/her iPod on shuffle and report on what it comes up with. Second, this is probably not suitable for work as Lord Grunge is very frank, let’s put it this way. Third, it’s nice to see Grand Buffet getting some press. I’m not totally in love with them but I think they’re doing interesting stuff despite working some well-mown territory (the aforementioned, low-tech white rap thing, but also this stage persona thing of being badass clowns). Regrettably, I haven’t seen them in concert; I saw a supergroup of sorts, Tubalcain, that included them plus some other dudes. They were funny.

-For the moment I am burned out on both Northern Exposure and Tecmo Super Bowl, which have been ruling my world these last several days. Don’t know what’s going on there; I think I just overdid it.

Okay, that was less a whirlwind than a stiff gust of breeze, but that’s the best I can do today. Hope all of my two or three readers are doing well this lovely Wednesday afternoon!

Luddite Morning a Success Tuesday, May 19 2009 

Last night I turned my computer off to give it a rest. (I know, I’m anthropomorphizing it; what of it?) This morning, I decided not to turn it on. Although I like to get my writing done right off the bat—I try not to think of it as “getting it over with,” but that’s what it amounts to—I wanted to see what it would be like to wait and do other stuff instead.

What “other stuff,” you ask? I’ll tell you: I baked bread! Okay, truthfully, I poured all the necessary ingredients into a bread machine, turned it on, and let it work its magic. But still: technically, I baked bread. I also cooked a delicious lunch of chick peas, garlic, onions, and green peppers that I can feast on tomorrow as well. In the between time, I bit off a big chunk of John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which I’m enjoying quite a bit. And the bread was delicious, thank you for asking. When I’ve used the bread machine before, it’s usually those first few slices that are best; after that there are diminishing returns, as the bread gets hard to cut and butter doesn’t melt into all the nooks and crannies as it does at first.

Now here I am at the Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library, using one of their computers. So far so good. When I get back home I will get down to work on my own, but I trust I’ll be able to dig in to some writing without feeling the need to go poring through my e-mail.

Before I go home, though, I will have to vote in today’s primary election. I’m not going to get all political but in the big race of the day, the Democratic mayoral primary, I will probably be voting against the boy mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, and for his challenger, Patrick Dowd, who strikes me as competent and not at all embarrassing to the city or its citizens. (Sorry for the snark; one man’s opinion.)

Speaking of embarrassments to Pittsburgh, the Steelers’ phenomenal linebacker, James Harrison, plans to stiff President Barack Obama when the Steelers make their White House visit; that is to say, he’s skipping the trip. His reasons are deeply stupid: “As far as I’m concerned,” he’s quoted as saying, “he [Obama] would’ve invited Arizona if they had won.” True, James, very true. Really weird rationale from a guy who’s previously seemed quietly sane and reasonable (except for that domestic abuse arrest). It’s a far cry from the time that much-missed Steelers personality (and also a linebacker) Joey Porter announced he would have some things to tell then-President George W. Bush when the 2005 champion Steelers team visited the White House. (I see from finding that link that Porter walked those comments back a bit, which makes me admire him that much less, but oh well.)

Okay, just as I was thinking of wrapping this up, I got a reminder pop-up that my session will end shortly. Oh, public libraries. The takeaway, for today, for me (and anyone who may be reading), is that not turning your computer on can be deeply refreshing, a big relief from waking and diving right into e-mail, news surfing, etc. etc.

Monday morning, catching up Monday, May 18 2009 

Fun, lazy weekend. The aforementioned trip to the downtown club was actually quite fun. The place turned out to be Bossa Nova, and it struck me differently from how my friend described it. In his version, it was a very high-end place, frequented by a very upscale clientele; “dress to impress,” he emphasized. In reality, it was a nice place but with a quite random assortment of Pittsburgh people: people my age (late 20s) but also a ton of thirtysomething professionals and a few clumps of people who were even older than that. I’m not complaining about that aspect of it, though: it was pleasantly weird, the kind of break-out-of-your-own-routine experience that’s completely refreshing every once in a while.

In a related story—a good segue here would be on the fact that I rarely acknowledge that Pittsburgh bars tend to each have a profile that sort of segregates one clique or age group from another—there is a fun, complimentary profile of another Pittsburgh bar, the Brillobox, in the New York Times weekend travel magazine. The Brillobox is very fun. For a while I was on a pub quiz team there, until I lost the will to drink every Wednesday. Anyway, I’ve become a real Pittsburgher in the way that I soak up all of this kind of major media attention. (There was also this travel profile of Pittsburgh in the Times last summer.) It just feels nice to have someone else acknowledge that Pittsburgh is a nice place.

There’s not too much else to report. The Pittsburgh Penguins begin their Eastern Conference finals series tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes. Good luck, Pens. I’ve signed on to be an extra in the movie Warrior, which is shooting in Oakland, at the Petersen Events Center, right now. (And when I say I’ve “signed on,” I should point out it’s not in the way that Julia Roberts “signs on” to be in a movie; it means I’ve sent an e-mail to the casting agency with my information. From the notice I got about this, though, it sounds like they need tons of people—for a crowd at a mixed martial arts event—so I’m hoping that my having a warm body will qualify me.) I have a strict policy of being an extra only in movies that are terrible—I was an extra in January 2008 on Kevin Smith’s awful Zack and Miri Make a Porno—and Warrior looks like it will sink to my low expectations. I am hoping, if I do make the cut, to spend my time on the set making tons of jokes that reference the Ultimate Warrior (although maybe this clip is a better introduction) and the great 1979 film The Warriors. (In reality, this would probably just involve me saying, “Warriors, come out and plaa-aay” over and over.)

A final note is that an account of how I’m living these days is incomplete without my acknowledging my utter swooning love for Northern Exposure. It’s really good, I’ll just say that for right now. I picked up season 3 on Saturday and am already deep into it. I’m constantly struck by the show’s intelligence and, especially, the language. Everyone has a different way of talking, but each seems really deep and character-based, and even when characters discourse on really brainy matters, it seems rooted in the world of the show. I felt for a bit, early on in the series, that the show was going to pains to make the residents of this Alaskan backwater seem more intelligent than one would assume them to be; that it was coming uncomfortably close to the dreaded Q word (that would be “quirky”; my feelings on quirkiness are best put on the shelf for another time). But it’s really hit its stride in season 3: these characters feel fully realized, and it’s quite a pleasure to spend time with them. (I fully accept however pathetic that may sound.) (I’ll also throw in as a note here that part of what got me to go ahead and check out Northern Exposure is the factoid on the singer/band Bon Iver (whose For Emma, Forever Ago I completely love), that that name came from characters on the show wishing each other “bon hiver” (“good/happy winter”); and also that Justin Vernon, Bon Iver’s main dude, watched all of the series while holed up in a Wisconsin cabin, ill. That is basically how it feels, swooning for this show, except substitute “unemployed and deeply unmotivated” for “ill.”)

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Coffee makes me insane and other observations Friday, May 15 2009 

I am not really supposed to drink coffee or have caffeine in any significant quantity. That’s because I have a problem with my jaw (similar to TMJ, but not quite as serious) where the muscles are strained and kind of tight; since caffeine makes muscles contract, it usually makes the pain a lot worse. Since I rarely drink coffee, and only sometimes have a cup of decaf, I’ve gotten to the point of being a caffeine lightweight. When I do drink it, I get like the person in this very funny McSweeney’s piece, “Confessions of a New Coffee Drinker.”

But it’s hard to stay off the black stuff completely, because it is awesome. It tastes good and it makes me energetic and buoyant and chatty in ways I’m usually not. So it is today. For no real reason, I had a cup of coffee this morning. Walking home from the 61C, taking in the sunshine, seeing all the little old ladies in their babushkas moving with their walkers, I thought of many funny things that I immediately forgot, smiled effusively, and in general enjoyed the long downhill walk home. Once home, I put away all the dishes in my dish rack and washed all the remaining dishes in the sink. I may do some laundry after this, but for now I am typing at an accelerated rate, answering e-mails in a jaunty fashion, and sort of squirming in my seat.

But that’s neither here nor there. I have been thinking that this weekend is my first “real” weekend as an unemployed person. In reality it’s the third weekend since my last day as an employed person, but the previous weekends saw me uncharacteristically busy: the first, I had a guest, ID, and last weekend I went home for my brother’s bachelor party. This will be the first weekend spent in Pittsburgh in the normal fashion: hanging out with friends, laying about, going for long walks, and so on.

That description sounds eerily familiar. I can’t quite place it . . . Oh yes—those are exactly the things I’ve been doing every day for the last week or so.

Yesterday a friend (who has been unemployed since late October) suggested hanging out on Sunday night. I sort of flinched at the day, since I’m so used to Sunday being a “school night.” When I recalled the circumstances, though, I remarked that every day was Saturday now. In general that’s been great. But I wonder if it will be strange when it’s actually Saturday. From past lay-about periods—breaks in school, or last May when I was looking hard for a job—I recall that I’ve always found it kind of frustrating to go out walking and find the streets and sidewalks suddenly crowded.

A friend of mine has cajoled me into going to a downtown club tonight. Apparently there is no cover, and I think the experience might make for a good experiment for the blog. That’s because my friend has repeatedly lectured me on the simple “secret” (which is what he calls it, to tease me) that when you go to a bar or club, you don’t have to drink. Not spending money fits my financial outlook for the moment, so I feel it’ll be worth a shot. But dancing and talking to strangers without a drink or two? It may be more daunting than it sounds.

Also, last night I went downtown to see Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child. Honestly, I did not care for it, although the performances, especially by the actor playing the “wild child,” Victor, were pretty excellent. I think I’m a plot man, and this one verged on documentary: this was pretty much a factual account of the case of the “Wild Boy of Aveyron.” So it was a little boring. But that’s just one man’s opinion.

It bears noting that every Pittsburgh Filmmakers screening (as this one was) is a bargain, especially for me: it was $3 with my Pitt ID, which makes it super-inviting to go and take a chance on a movie I’m not sure I’ll like. I will never stop saying it: Pittsburgh Filmmakers is one of the great treasures of Pittsburgh.

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On the Road Thursday, May 14 2009 

Today was one of those days that I woke unable to tolerate the idea of staying in and sitting at my desk to work. So I’ve relocated to the 61C Cafe in Squirrel Hill. It’s raining intermittently outside and the cafe is pleasantly half-crowded. I’ll likely stay here as long as I can bear it—I feel cooped up after a while—or until my laptop’s battery begins to get dangerously low.

It’s occurring to me more and more that the real challenge of unemployment, at least at this stage, is to stay disciplined and focused. I’ve set myself enough tasks for this time—writing a novel, outlining a screenplay, blogging every day, exercising, submitting my fiction, trying to get paid freelance gigs—that I shouldn’t be bored. But most of these projects have no deadlines, and no one is expecting me to do them. So there seems to be a double-edged sword type of thing going on here, where there is time aplenty to accomplish all these tasks, but there’s also the serious temptation to play Tecmo Super Bowl, take a nap, watch Northern Exposure, and so on and so forth.

In other news, the Pittsburgh Penguins are advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals in the NHL, after beating up on the Washington Capitals, 6-2. This Sports Illustrated article makes it sound like the Penguins are a hard-working bunch of lads who practiced sound fundamentals even after building up a sizable lead.

Well, good for you, boys. I almost wish I’d watched the series now. I am quite impressed by whatever adjustment the Pens made after game 2, when they were down 0-2 and things looked bleak. I sort of made myself neutral, this playoff period, because I did not want to offend a roommate who is a Philadelphia Flyers supporter by rooting for the Pens (who eliminated the Flyers in the first round). And really the fact is I don’t enjoy watching televised hockey. I never have. It seems like one of those sports you appreciate more in principle, especially once you do some part of it: in this case, skating hard for more than a minute at a time. (It’s like the way that I can appreciate NASCAR only after I’ve been driving 70 mph and found the idea of going any faster than that terrifying.)

Oh, but the literary nerd part of me was gratified by the Penguins-Capitals series because I’ve always thought it would make for good headlines, since the Penguins’ name is usually shortened to Pens, and the Capitals’ to Caps. So you could have titles like “Caps bottle up Pens” or “Pens ditch Caps” or just “Pens get Capped.” I’m sure somewhere some copy editor has noticed this before, though.

Summer 2008: A Primer Wednesday, May 13 2009 

No, “2008” is not a mistake. I have been thinking about the state that I am in, as most unemployed people surely do. And it occurs to me that the reason I am so relatively carefree, to the point of being almost flippant about now being jobless, is that I never felt as if I’d “landed.”

The job I had until a week and a half ago was a “career”-type job, but I never lost sight of the fact that while everyone around me had insurance benefits, vacation days, and the reasonable assurance of keeping their jobs, I was a temp. They treated me well there, but I certainly never forgot that I wasn’t on an equal footing with everyone else. Prior to that, I was a temp somewhere else. And before that—this was May of 2008, now—I spent a month going from cocksure about finding a lucrative and decent job at any minute, to panicking over my bank statement and signing up with every temp agency that would have me. Just prior to that, I’d graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a Master’s degree; I’d spent three years hiding behind those ivy-covered walls.

In a nutshell, I’m still in the mode of waiting for a decent job to turn up, now one year later. So as I’ve thought about it, it’s become sort of convenient, conceptually, to see this current phase of my life and career as still being the Summer of 2008. The difference, besides part of the “Summer” featuring heavy snowfall, is that I’ve lost a number of illusions about a job magically “turning up.” Part of why unemployment is downright appealing to me is that it’s become more important to me to reduce spending, and get by on less money, and have the opportunity to do less work and do more of the things I want to do, as well as to have a chance at making money through my writing. In that sense—i.e., not having illusions about a job rescuing me—maybe the summer is over, after all.

Anyway, thinking about the summer of 2008 got me thinking of a few songs that helped me through it. I really did not enjoy the temp assignment I had then: I took a bus at 7 a.m. every morning to get to work downtown by 8. It was a data entry job: actually, my job was to check the keying-in of a whole other team of data entry people. The people were nice enough, but I had little to say to them (other than a spirited Steelers-Philadelphia Eagles verbal sparring match). Basically it was one of the dullest jobs I’ve ever had. I’m eternally grateful to my parents for sending me an iPod. (I know how I probably sound now, but I do not care.) Anyway, I thought I’d post two songs that I often listened to on my way into work at about 7:54 a.m.

One is Islands’ “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone”:

And the other is the Pogues’ “A Pair of Brown Eyes”:

Enjoy!

Huck Finn + Tenacious D and also a blog recommendation Tuesday, May 12 2009 

It’s Tuesday, and I’m up and off to a good start. That’s in part thanks to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I’m reading now. I can’t believe I waited this long; it’s the kind of book that is so talked about, you assume it’s kind of lame, or that you’ve basically absorbed it from hearing bits and pieces. But it’s pretty awesome, and helpful to me in terms of what I’m writing now. (I won’t say a lot about that, because I’m sort of superstitious about my writing, but I’m working on a novel that would work well with the episodic, one-adventure-after-another structure of Huck Finn.)

As I go along, the idea for this blog is morphing. I’m married to the blog title “Down and Out in Pittsburgh,” but I’ll readily acknowledge that I’m neither down nor out. This isn’t really going to be an account of my hard times. And the fact is that a lot of what I’m going to write won’t be terribly supportive for other unemployed people—at least for the moment, I’m pleased to have the time to write, read, watch movies, and hang out. And I suppose my idea for this blog is to emphasize the little free things, such as those and some Pittsburgh-specific things, that can make life pleasant for those who have no job.

But I don’t want to lose sight of the stresses of joblessness. So while I can’t and won’t chronicle that aspect of the situation, I’ll try to point out useful and interesting resources when I come across them.

With that in mind, I’d recommend Survive Unemployment, a really interesting blog that does focus on the don’t-go-crazy aspects of unemployment. The post that jumped out at me, scrolling through, was this one, “Ideas for the Unemployed.” It’s a nice reminder of the possibilities of this time, that offset the stresses. (And I like that the blog’s author, Chuck, goes ahead and mentions taking a leisurely dump as one of the things to be thankful for.)

Full disclosure, though: Chuck gave this blog its first comment, meaning he’s the first confirmed reader of the blog who isn’t me. I do seriously like his blog, though; it’s not just tit for tat.

The situation gives me the opportunity to post one of my favorite pieces of TV ever: it’s from the short-lived Tenacious D series on HBO, an episode called “The Fan” in which the D stalk their one and only fan:

Hope your Tuesday is off to a great start as well!

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Checking in, Briefly Monday, May 11 2009 

I’m back in Pittsburgh after a weekend in the Philadelphia region. It was pretty glorious—the details are not germane to this blog, relating as they do to strip clubs, fraternal love, Philadelphia sports, and family politics—and the drives to and fro were not too eventful, except for some pretty intense thunderstorms just outside Pittsburgh.

I’m a bit tuckered out from the journey. I’ve got nothing big or important to say today. But in passing, I’ll point out an exchange in the comments of the article I mentioned last time, over at the College Rag: someone asked about my photo, which was taken at the 2008 Anthrocon (a.k.a. “Furry Convention”), and I responded with a pretty thorough explanation. (Maybe too much detail, actually.)

Anthrocon is a pretty fun topic, as it was one of those weird things I did that turned out to be even more bizarre and rewarding than I’d expected. I’ll probably go on at length about it in a future post.

Also, my capsule review of Star Trek: It was awesome! I was genuinely thrown by Tyler Perry having a role as an authority figure at Starfleet Academy, but that’s life. I really had no preconceptions or sacred cows when it comes to the Star Trek franchise/universe, so this went down pretty easy, and was totally enjoyable as an action/sci-fi feature, with more than enough of the requisite “weight” or “substance” thrown in in the form of some Spock-Kirk relationship stuff and the heavy-but-somehow-not-a-complete-downer issue of genocides carried out on various planets. So, pretty excellent is my verdict.

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